Leon Jolson

Obituary
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JOLSON--Leon, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a philanthropist, and an American businessman, died August 7th at his home in New York City. He was 96 years old, and death was from natural causes. Born Leon Yosselson in Warsaw in 1913, and a graduate of the University of Warsaw, he emigrated to the United States in 1947, with his wife Anya Kotkowski, after five years spent in work camps, in hiding, and in DP camps. Although he arrived here with only six dollars in his pocket, he quickly established himself. The child of sewing machine importers, he knew the trade. In 1948, as founder and president of the Necchi Sewing Machine Sales Corporation in the United States, he was the first to bring a foreign sewing machine to America, the Italian Necchi, which could, without attachments, do a zig zag stitch, a blind stitch, embroider, and make buttonholes, all operations that here had to be done by hand. Subsequently, he also distributed Switzerland's portable Elna. The machines became so popular and the company so successful that within just a few years, Jolson became a symbol of survivor enterprise. He was honored by many, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, was profiled in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Reader's Digest, and was also written about in a number of books, including Dorothy Rabinowitz's New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America. In 1953, he began importing sewing machines from Japan, under the business name of the Nelco Corporation, and for many years he was the sole importer for J.C. Penney, Co. Surviving him are his daughter, Barbara and her husband David Blumenthal, grandchildren, Adam and Elana Blumenthal, Gideon Blumenthal, Shira Blumenthal, and a great-grandson Jonah. A daughter, Dorothy, died in 1984; his wife, Anya, in 2002. Shiva will be observed in private. Once here, Jolson's inclination to philanthropy quickly surfaced. He created his first fellowship in 1952, the day he became a citizen, giving $10,000 to Columbia University Teachers College to assist other refugees without, he insisted, regard to race, religion, or nationality. Later he established a foundation, now the Nelco Foundation, to support education and health causes, and also created the Leon Jolson Award, administered by the Jewish Book Council, for a nonfiction work on the subject of the Holocaust. The sculpture of the Polish-Jewish hero, Janos Korchak at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue was donated by Jolson, who also funded a casting of the Polish-Jewish sculptor Nathan Jacob Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto Uprising for Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. Nor did he forget to mark history in Poland itself. Because of Leon Jolson, one of the buildings in which he and his family hid, is now a landmark that symbolically, and anonymously, memorializes the mother, son, and wife who concealed themselves there to save their lives. In addition, the stone on his mother's grave in a Catholic cemetery, where she lay buried under a false name because outside the Ghetto she couldn't die as member of her own faith, has been altered to give her real identity. It now says, "Here lies Blima Yosselson, buried here as a Christian because she couldn't be buried as a Jew." A man of brilliance and complexity, his good deeds will be long remembered.

Published in The New York Times on Aug. 8, 2009
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